China Trip The sun’s coming out in cheering, treacherous bursts that drop a cloudburst on your head when you’re in the middle of enjoying the non-winter weather, and the Easter candy just got marked way down: it’s definitely spring. But there’s more to spring  than cheap jellybeans and alarming weather. There’s new tea. There are people picking fresh leaves off tea bushes as you read this, sending them on their way to become new drinks for us.

In India, especially down south, the jungle climate is so good on plants that there are tea harvests all the time, literally constantly in some places. That pace isn’t possible farther north, though. In China and Japan and even Darjeeling, still inside the Indian borders, they have temperate climates with winters and springs, and spring is when the harvest starts.

Tea, especially high quality tea, is the newest, youngest leaves on the bushes, often picked after only a few weeks of existence. In white teas, and the occasional green, you can often still sea the downy covering on buds that never grew into full leaves. These downy teas, like Silver Needle and Snow Bud and Bi Lo Chun, are the first ones picked, often even before the Qing Ming festival in early April which is the official Chinese start of spring, which was just this week.

After Qing Ming harvesting goes into full swing. High grade and delicate teas are both often considered best when made with very young, tender leaves. In China people spend shocking amounts of money on the earliest Dragonwells. Japanese tea enthusiasts wait all year for shincha–literally “new tea”–season, when the fresh new senchas are sent out, powerful, aggressively flavored teas that I highly, highly recommend you don’t steep for more than a minute and a half. Darjeeling, still maintaining some of the year-round Indian tea schedule, makes rounded and mature summer or ‘second flush’ teas, but their bright, astringent, almost green first flushes are still a favorite for a lot of people.

Spring teas are strong and fresh, waking you up like the nearly-forgotten sun first thing in spring; sweet and delicate, like the first moments that the air gets warm enough to go out without a jacket, and just as fleeting. That kind of freshness can’t last for long, and the value of it can be drowned out as all the other plants we spend all winter waiting for start to be harvested. The year’s first cup of new tea is as important as the morning’s first cup of any tea that has some freaking caffeine in it; pay attention.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

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